I can’t relay the intensity of Son of Saul accurately; you can only know by watching it, but, for the sake of the review, suffice it to say you witness hell. The film, by Hungarian director László Nemes, and winner of this year’s Oscar for a Foreign Language Film, follows Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a sonderkommando at Auschwitz. The sonderkommandos, a group of concentration camp workers, directed other prisoners into the gas chambers, removed the dead bodies, rummaged the remains, and burnt them. While piling the prisoners’ bodies, the kommandos find a boy who survived the gas chamber. The Nazis take the boy and smother him. Saul watches. Saul decides then that he must bury the boy with full Hebrew rites. Saul moves like a specter through Auschwitz to find a rabbi for a proper burial, caring not for survival, only for the honor of this dead boy.
The plot is bare. It pushes forward bluntly, largely ignoring any considerations of intricacy. The movie is about Saul’s mission to bury the boy. There are a few characters besides Saul, but they receive little to no attention. The film gets away with being about Auschwitz, if that’s a way to put it, because it is not about Auschwitz, at least not Auschwitz in its totality. It is about Saul’s unfaltering mission to redeem a soul from a soulless place.
And the film never overloads our capacity to be horrified. It constantly holds our attention and never tries to get a cheap shot of an atrocity. It never feels absurd. Partly, it avoids absurdity through its subject matter: given what the audience knows of the Holocaust, almost no evil can possibly appear out of place. But partly, it keeps the audience engaged through its intense visual focus on Saul; Nemes shoots the film almost entirely in close-up on him, leaving the audience only an out of focus, background view of the terrors of Auschwitz. This style both extracts humanity from an inhuman universe, and mediates the impossible realities of Auschwitz through our peripheries.
Nemes’ uncompromising style also demands a nearly perfect performance out of Röhrig, which he gives. But it is not a spectacular performance by any means. No, that would be perverse. The only way to play the part of Ausländer is through dead silence. Röhrig looks completely drained of life, rarely showing emotion, with his blank stare and a robotic determination, and that is precisely what this role calls for. Humanizing Ausländer in Auschwitz would romanticize the true debasement of his experience. Ausländer cares more about the rites of a dead boy than about his own life, and, in doing so, he embraces the humanity of which Auschwitz tried to rid the world.
This film does not try to escape reality. Instead, it gives a deeper sense of reality. It does not hide the slaughter, but it does not focus on it either. Nemes understands that melodramatic whitewashing does the world no justice. The film’s paralyzing realism pains us, but we must watch it—not only to bear witness to the evils humans are capable of, but also to rejoice, in our own quiet way, at the resilience of the human spirit. Son of Saul reminds us that humanity, not just people, survived the Holocaust. It finds hope where there is none, redemption where there could be none, and poetry where there should be none.
Grade: A+. The film will not screen often in the U.S. If you have any chance to see this hollowing film, take it.